Erasing images from the past

Tattoo: Among services to youths straightening out their lives, a Catonsville foundation helps arrange removal of tattoos.

May 10, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When Traci Strawbridge was 14 years old, she dated a budding tattoo artist who liked to practice on her. He put his name on her ankle, his initials on her back, marijuana leaves on her ankle and forearm and a giant Pegasus on her chest.

Strawbridge got the tattoos just as her life started spinning out of control - about the time she was raped, got into drugs and started living on the street. For more then 10 years, she led a life of addiction and occasional prostitution, culminating in jail time for attempted murder after a drug deal gone bad.

Years later, when Strawbridge was finally ready to get her life together again, she felt her tattoos were holding her back. So she sought help from a Catonsville-based foundation that, among other things, has a tattoo removal program. Six painful laser treatments later, Strawbridge can wear blouses for the first time in her adult life without the Pegasus sticking out the top.

"Everybody but everybody would always say to me, `What's on your chest? Can I see?'" says Strawbridge, now 31 and a hairdresser. "It ruined my life completely. ... I'm successful now because I don't have those ugly-looking tattoos. I know I could work at the White House if I wanted to."

Since 1993, the Youth Outreach Foundation has helped about 40 young people remove tattoos, says its director, Hal Sparks.

Sometimes they are relatively innocuous, like the ones Strawbridge had. Others are more sinister: swastikas, gang symbols, four-letter words.

"Our society has always had tattoos," Sparks says. "From day one, people have been tattooed. Some people look at it as art. But there's also the dark side, other messages people can convey through these tattoos. Not all of it is art. A lot of it is message."

Pimps sometimes tattoo their prostitutes, branding them like cattle, Sparks says. Those in the drug trade often get tattoos to show allegiance to a drug lord.

The $2 million Youth Outreach Foundation (YOF) does more than tattoo removal. It helps troubled youths by paying college and vocational school tuition and by distributing in-kind gifts such as clothing. Sparks travels to juvenile detention centers all over the country, telling teens he will help them if they show some initiative.

Started in 1993 by W. J. Hindman, who founded Jiffy Lube, the foundation spends about $300,000 a year. It supplements its modest endowment with fund-raisers such as golf tournaments.

Sparks, who himself had a rough childhood, got the idea to pay for tattoo removals while visiting prisons.

"When we visited many of our sites, we saw these tattoos on kids," he says. "One of my thoughts was, nobody is going to hire you with that tattoo on your face. Nobody is going to hire you with those giant crosses on your hands."

A typical tattoo, Sparks says, will take five laser treatments to remove. The treatments are painful and expensive - but effective. Cost varies according to doctor. Some offer to do the work for free. Others charge $300 or $400 per treatment.

Sparks says he gets hundreds of letters a year from young people around the country asking for help. He or his staff tries to get in touch with all of them. They tell the youths that they need to have a goal in life, and the YOF will do what it can to help them get there.

"We're not going to [help] unless you make a behavior change," Sparks says. "We aren't going to put all our efforts into you if you just want your girlfriend's name taken off your shoulder. It doesn't work that way."

Strawbridge had 10 tattoos - all from the ex-boyfriend.

Sparks told her the YOF wouldn't pay to remove all of her tattoos, but it would help out with one or two. She picked the Pegasus on her chest and the unicorn on her arm, because they were the most visible.

The others - such as her ex's initials and the pot leaves - she has decided to disguise with more innocuous tattoos of flowers and butterflies.

Lisa Smith, a 23-year-old hairdresser who lives in Perry Hall, had different tattoos - but a similar story. When she was about 17, a boyfriend put a Molotov cocktail tattoo on her forearm. It had barbed wires, a skeleton and the name of a punk rock band, the Subhumans.

She was going through an angry stage in her life when she got the tattoo, Smith recalls, but after a couple of years felt it didn't express her inner self anymore.

"I wanted to get it removed because it was just too mean," she says. "It was a violent tattoo, and I just didn't want it on my body."

Smith told Sparks she wanted to go to beauty school and get a full-time job, so he paid for more than 10 treatments to get the tattoo removed. Now Smith is happily employed as a hairdresser.

"I felt stained, and now I feel better," she says. "Don't get me wrong, I like tattoos. I have three of them left. But now if I have anything on my body, I want it to be gardens and butterflies. Now I just want to stay on the peaceful side of the world."

Damian Tarlecki, another participant in the tattoo-removal program, grew up in Charles County and gave himself a large homemade tattoo of a "tribal arrow" when he was 14 years old. It wasn't exactly a gang symbol, he says, but he did it to be popular.

The group where he found acceptance was heavily into drugs and troublemaking, and Tarlecki soon landed in the state-run Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a juvenile offender facility in Baltimore County. It was there that he heard about the Youth Outreach Foundation and contacted Sparks.

Sparks paid for Tarlecki, 20, to go to the College of Southern Maryland and gave him a used car. Now Tarlecki works as an information technology designer for Chopp & Co. in Waldorf.

Sparks also put Tarlecki in touch with an Annapolis doctor who agreed to remove his tattoo for free. "The only repayment that he asks for," Tarlecki says, "is that you stay out of trouble."

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